On the evening of Sunday 30 October 1938, six million Americans sitting around their wireless sets heard some terrifying news: humanity was on the brink of annihilation. According to the CBS broadcast, the vanguard of an invading army had landed in the farmlands of New Jersey and was moving steadily across the continent. More than one million Americans panicked. Friends and relatives were telephoned and warned of the impending calamity. Bread, blankets and babies were thrown into cars, which then sped westwards. Other listeners were too stunned to move. Women and men fainted; children and dogs howled. As one student admitted shortly afterwards: "I didn't have any idea exactly what I was fleeing from, and that made me all the more afraid." America was not being attacked by the Germans or the Japanese. The invading hordes came from the planet Mars.
It was a hoax, of course, and the millions of terrified listeners were furious at being fooled. They accused CBS of causing them "grievous bodily or mental injury" and demanded compensation for their pain. Orson Welles, the young broadcaster and actor responsible for the radio play, was forced to issue an abject apology.
Welles's play was an adaptation of H G Wells's 1898 novel War of the Worlds. He had simply modernised the story by moving the action to the 1930s. No wonder listeners found it convincing. In that uncertain decade, many Americans easily believed that aliens could destroy the world as they knew it. Wasn't there talk of an approaching world war? Unemployment was rocketing. Only a few months earlier President Roosevelt had warned: "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear itself." Welles's radio adaptation of War of the Worlds scored a direct hit on a seam of political alarm underpinning American culture in the 1930s.
Niall Ferguson's new book, The War of the World, also seeks to tap into an underlying sense of apprehension. Why was the 20th century marked by massacres, genocides and war on an unprecedented scale, and how could the carnage have been avoided? Today, weapons of mass destruction seem to be proliferating. Confidence in the ability of politicians to exercise restraint has waned. Faith in human reason is fading. What is going to prevent the 21st century descending into worldwide war?
Ferguson provides a potted account of the way the west was torn apart by tumultuous storms of hatred. As the west declined, the east was on the rise, driven by economic robustness. Although Ferguson admits that it is not difficult to imagine a future in which west and east clash in war, he remains cautiously optimistic about the chances of 21st-century nation states avoiding full-scale conflict. He argues that the unrivalled superiority of the US in the 1990s was a force for good. Uncontested American supremacy enabled violence elsewhere in the world to be contained. As a result, global warfare is now at its lowest level since the late 1950s. Ferguson seems to believe in the ability of strong nations (the US and, in the future, perhaps China) to control the passions of more volatile ones.
Although Ferguson's story is daunting in its detail (the book has to be propped up against a table to be read comfortably), it does not claim to be a history of the entire century. The focus is on the years between 1904, when Japan became the first Asian power in modern times to defeat a European power, and 1953, the year the Korean war ended. Ferguson is most assured when dealing with the terrible years between 1914 and 1918. It is important, he tells us, to remember that the years before 1914 were relatively peaceful. In Europe, at least, there were only 21 major wars in the hundred years up to this point. In that context, the inability of many British elites to forecast the start of hostilities in 1914 is understandable, especially when tied to their (misplaced) confidence in Britain's imperial might. Surely, these elites believed, the world's largest empire possessed sufficient power to avert a global crisis.
They were proved wrong. Rather than preventing war, empires fuelled them. To carry out the dirty task of slaughter, all major powers were dependent on recruits, conscripts and forced labour drawn from territories far from their national heartlands. In the end, the war ground to a halt largely as a result of a dramatic slump in the morale of German soldiers, who began surrendering in droves. By that stage, however, a generation had been slaughtered.
Although the Great War casts a long shadow over the 20th century, Ferguson acknowledges that the war which followed was even more decisive. The Second World War propelled the notion of "total war" to horrifying heights. Civi-lians became the victims-of-choice. While only 5 per cent of deaths in the 1914-18 conflict were civilian, in the 1939-45 war that figure was 66 per cent. Many more civilians than military personnel were killed in Belgium, China, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Innocence was butchered.
According to Ferguson, peace brought only a "tainted victory". Western powers had allied themselves with Stalin, a "despot who was every bit as brutal a tyrant as Hitler". Unrestrained submarine warfare and the terror-bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima (to name just a few) had contaminated British and American honour. It is alleged that when Winston Churchill heard the news about the death sentences passed on the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, he turned to his chief of staff and commented: "Nuremberg shows that it's supremely important to win. You and I would be in a pretty pickle if we had not."
The two world wars had reduced humanity to rubble; the Holocaust had stripped even that rubble of meaning. It was followed by the threat of nuclear annihilation. Humanity had fashioned a world of suffering which dwarfed anything that went before. How could this have happened? The subtitle to Ferguson's book provides his answer: the 20th century was an "age of hatred". Throughout the world, people turned on their neighbours with ferocity. De-humanisation became common: the suddenness with which people could be cast as "aliens" was alarming. During the Armenian genocide of 1912-13, the Turks coined a description for the Armenians: "dog food". When Japanese soldiers entered Nanking in 1938, the 20,000 Chinese women they raped were considered less than human. As one soldier explained: "We felt no shame about it. No guilt." Through the classi- fication of the enemy as inhuman, they all became fair game.
This orgy of inhumanity is thoroughly probed by Ferguson. And when he sticks to history, it is a credible account, even if it doesn't tell us much that is new. The problem is that he seems to have been seduced by evolutionary psychology. He gives much analytical weight to the concept of "hatred", yet never really tells us what it is. Instead, he relies on the vague idea that hatred is one of humanity's innate instincts. The "twin urge to rape and murder remains repressed in a civilised society", he argues, but it wreaks havoc when unleashed upon the world. Economic volatility is one important trigger.
Ferguson's thesis is most disturbingly addressed in the context of sexualised violence. He suggests that the destructive instinct is intrinsically tied to the sexual impulse. Sexual violence directed against enemies was inspired by "erotic, albeit sadistic, fantasies as much as by 'eliminationist' racism", he asserts. Bloodlust and rape went together. This just isn't good enough. The simple logic and aura of scientific certitude represented by the appeal to instincts mask the fact that "instincts" don't actually explain anything.
At best, all Ferguson is doing is sticking a label on complex historical processes. To assume an inherent connection between hate and love does nothing to clarify why some genocides (hate) have involved rape (which Ferguson bizarrely wants to put in the "eros" category) while others have not. Neither the "repression" of hatred nor its "eruption" explains anything in historical terms. It is unclear, for instance, how the "volatile ambivalence" of "aversion and attraction" can help us understand the history of violence "which has for so long characterised relations between white Americans and African Americans".
By emphasising the primordial connection with our primate ancestors, Ferguson reduces the complexity of human society and fails to account for individual motivations or cultural trends in violence. It is an unfortunate lapse. Ferguson should leave psychology to the psychologists and stick to what he is really good at: writing history.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of "Fear: a cultural history" (Virago, 2006). She is currently writing a book about rapists